Reality TV fans are acutely aware that American Idol — coming off a Season 12 finale that, year-to-year, was down 33 percent in total viewers and 44 percent in the 18-49 demo — is bracing for the kind of treatment that Tyra Banks gives to pretty young pageant girls on Top Model: A dramatic makeover!
And a report today from Vulture — that producers are considering a judges’ panel made up entirely of former contestants — certainly sounds like Idol is in for more than a basic cut-and-color during the dormant period before filming on Season 13 gets underway sometime in late August or early September.
Still, while there’s certainly some #Pow to the rumors that Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken have all been approached about taking over the chairs most recently occupied by Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey, I can’t shake the fear that this sounds more like a gimmicky quick fix to Idol‘s declining health rather than a deeper examinatination of what’s truly ailing the franchise. (We should also bear in mind that, at this early stage, everything about Season 13 — short of the fact that Randy won’t be back — is speculative.)
Nevertheless, let’s weigh the potential positives and negatives of an all-alumni panel:
* The majority of Idol grads are inarguably talented vocalists, lending immediate credibility to their critiques.
* Lambert and Aiken, in particular, have reputations for amusingly unchecked candor — a quality that’s been sadly lacking in most Idol judges (as well as their rivals on The Voice and The X Factor). Plus, as my Idology cohost (and Season 6 standout) Melinda Doolittle has proven, it’s possible to be critical without being cruel or dismissive. (Come to think of it, Fox really ought to have Melinda’s agent on speed dial…even if I have no clue how I’d go on without her!)
* Populating the panel with Idol‘s bold-faced grads might generate enough nostalgia to lure back some lost viewers, and would certainly underscore The Voice‘s lack of success in turning its own alumnae into musical superstars.
* Adam Lambert’s hair > Keith Urban’s hair.
* As we’ve seen with everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Steven Tyler to Adam Levine to Mariah Carey, it’s very, very, very difficult to get current artists — whose primary income source comes from selling their music to the masses — to say or do anything as judges that would make them seem “unlikeable.” While that’s good news to their labels, it generally leads to the kind of bland, toothless feedback that makes TV viewers reach for the fast-forward button. Clarkson herself wasn’t terrible at critiquing rival contestants last summer on the ABC reality competition Duets, but is “not terrible” really what Fox is looking for?
* Regardless of who winds up in the Paula Abdul Memorial Chair, Idol producers need to make a three-tiered guarantee regarding Season 13’s judges: 1) That said panelists will be encouraged — no, required — to give honest feedback about the performances happening in front of them. 2) That at no time will the show’s producers try to sway or script the judges’ comments during live performance shows in order to push some kind of premature, predetermined vision of who they feel should wind up in the finale. 3) That said judges will commit enough time and energy to their jobs that they’ll be able to actually formulate real opinions — and deliver actionable feedback — to the contestants in front of them. Without those guarantees, it doesn’t matter if the chairs are filled by your dad, my mom and a monkey gleefully banging together a pair of cymbals.
* Ultimately, if producers think that they can cook up a panel of three or four alumnae and — voila! — their ratings woes will be solved, then it’s time to start writing Idol’s obituary now. This is a show that — at its heart — is about watching an Oklahoma farm girl get transformed into one of the nation’s biggest music superstars. Uncle Nigel & Co. (or whoever replaces Uncle Nigel & Co.) need to examine every aspect of the show — from audition to coronation — with an eye on how to return focus to that anonymity-to-stardom trajectory and how to make viewers feel that they’re ultimately the true deciders of how said trajectory plays out.
What do you think of the idea of an all-graduate panel on Idol? Which three or four former contestants would you like to see in the chairs? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news, interviews, recaps and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!